A mad scene is an enactment of insanity in an opera or play. It was a popular convention of Italian and French opera in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

Mad scenes were often created as a way to offer star singers a chance to show off their abilities, though many of them are also very dramatic. The vocal writing is often exciting and highly demanding, requiring immense skill. Most mad scenes were composed for the soprano voice, but there are examples for the baritone and the tenor.

They are most popularly associated with works of the bel canto period, though examples may also be found in earlier works, such as George Frederick Handel's Orlando and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Idomeneo. Almost all mad scenes were composed for either opere serie or opere semiserie; Gaetano Donizetti was probably the most famous exponent of the form.

The convention of writing mad scenes largely died out after the bel canto era, as composers sought to inject more realism into their operas. More recently, some composers have returned to the form for dramatic effect, most notably Benjamin Britten in the final act of Peter Grimes.

Similar mad scene techniques have also appeared in ballets, such as Giselle.

The modern musical theatre has also been influenced by the operatic mad scene, as evidenced in Sweeney Todd and Sunset Boulevard.

Famous examples

George Frideric Handel

Johann Adolph Hasse

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Gioachino Rossini

Gaetano Donizetti

Vincenzo Bellini

Ambroise Thomas

Giacomo Meyerbeer

Giuseppe Verdi

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Modest Mussorgsky

Richard Wagner

Alban Berg

Benjamin Britten

Hans Werner Henze

André Previn

John Corigliano


Jacques Offenbach

Gilbert & Sullivan

Benjamin Britten

Leonard Bernstein